When he was 10 years old, Jamil Samaan and his family came to the United States from Syria. School was a struggle — he didn’t speak any English. Despite the challenges he faced as a young immigrant in the U.S., he worked diligently towards his goal of becoming a doctor and soon that dream will be realized when he accepts his diploma from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

He hopes others in his Syrian American community can be supported in this same achievement. Samaan’s years of navigating the U.S. education system through language barriers, economic disadvantage and lack of access to mentorship motivated him to create the Syrian American Association of Science and Health in 2017.

“My story inspired me to start this association because I did not have access to anyone to help me,” he said. “While there are Syrian doctors in our community, very few have studied medicine in the United States. Since medical school admissions and the educational system is very different in Syria, they often cannot comment on the strategies and details of applying to medical school.”

The association comprises Syrian American undergraduate students from various universities across California working with Samaan to help the Syrian American community.

“We believe that the best care for Syrian American patients is provided by competent Syrian American doctors who not only understand their pathology but are culturally competent to holistically approach care with understanding of their cultural background, daily habits and beliefs,” Samaan said.

Increasing the number of Syrian Americans in health care, he hopes, will help address the unique challenges faced by Syrians in the U.S.

“Just like all other immigrant populations, Syrian Americans face unique health challenges that are rooted in culture, language barriers and attitudes towards health care,” he said. “I established this association to first identify these obstacles through research and subsequently help my community overcome them.”

To foster interest in science, the association hosts annual science days at organizations across Southern California, in addition to an annual workshop for pre-med students to discuss the medical school application process and strategies.

Samaan is working in the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health with Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, associate professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School to better understand his community’s health challenges. “Jamil is surveying health access and behavior among Syrians in the U.S. This is one of the first surveys on this population,” she said.

He presented the research in March at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Chicago, Illinois, with the undergraduate students involved in the study.

“Along with potentially helping the community, this provides an opportunity for Syrian American students who are working on the project to learn how to conduct research and sharpen their skills to better thrive in the medical field,” he said.

The study collects information in-person and online through an electronic form. So far, more than 1,000 surveys across the nation have been completed by participants, and the researchers hope to collect data from all 50 states.

Their first step is determining population health status: What are the rates of chronic diseases, smoking, alcohol consumption and regular health check-ups? How many patients have insurance? What language do they prefer their health care providers to speak?

Samaan and his colleagues aim to publish their findings this summer and begin addressing the issues discovered in their data collection.

After commencement Samaan will pursue his internal medicine residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and hopes to do his fellowship in gastroenterology and further specialize in advanced endoscopy.

In the future, he foresees the association growing its programs for young people and adults in the Syrian American and Arab American communities.

“The need is there,” he said. “We are taking things one step at a time and building a stronger, more supported community every day.”

— Larissa Puro